Selling Used Cellphones Risks Spread of Personal Information

At least 50,000 used cellphones have been pawned in the Washington, D.C.-area since 2013, raising the risk private information can spread, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.

The sale of used phones is legal throughout the region, but privacy experts question whether sellers are successfully wiping the phones clean of sensitive information.

State police records obtained by the I-Team show 14,268 phones were pawned in Maryland alone last year. The I-Team’s review of pawn operations in Washington and Montgomery counties found phones being sold at prices as low as $40. But phones purchased by the I-Team at pawn shops and online revealed personal information, including photos, addresses, phone numbers and personal contacts, were not fully deleted before the sales.

Atlantic Data Forensics CEO Brian Dykstra, a Howard County computer and wireless security expert, said troves of information and data can remain hidden on used cellphones.

“Literally years’ worth of data that you think you’ve deleted is still sitting on the device,” he said.

Dykstra said many phone owners fail to successfully wipe phones clean.


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“Factory wiping your data from the phone, back to the default, is best,” he said. “Don’t just `surface` wipe it.”

The I-Team purchased a series of used phones online and at local pawn shops and took the phones to a private forensics lab for expert review. The expert forensics teams found evidence of personal photos, phone numbers and potential home addresses inside the used phones. Though the I-Team and forensics team chose not to view the personal information, evidence of its existence on the used phones was clear.

The I-Team bought one used phone from a Craigslist seller from McLean. Franklin Dam, a stay-at-home father, said he wiped the phone of personal information by following instructions for a “factory reset.”

“I wasn’t sure if I had traded stocks on that phone or used a password,” Dam said. “That was my biggest fear, that a password would get out.”

Dam’s phone was the only phone found to be fully clean of personal information after its sale, according to the review by private computer forensics teams.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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